Turtle Time: How mental health breaks can help you and your children manage stressWritten by Carol Cuppy
What's inside this article
Parenting is by far the hardest job any of us will ever have but it is also the most wonderful. The Bible tells us that children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3-5). That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be challenges or stressful times along the way. Certain circumstances and seasons of our lives can be far more stressful than others. How we react to those stresses is critical for our family’s growth and our children’s sense of well-being. Taking mental health breaks can help us as parents to stay calm despite daily stresses that come our way.
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly been a source of stress for our families. So many of us have been experiencing anxiety, depression and grief during this time. Being constantly together within the confines of our homes can wear on our nerves – especially when the kids won’t settle down or we try to take on more than we’re used to. These current circumstances certainly qualify as stressful. But how are we reacting to the current stresses that we’re facing? And how can we make sure that we are responding in appropriate ways?
Imagine a turtle who lives on the beach. The turtle enjoys his life overall: surfing the ocean waves, snacking on algae, sunning on the rocks and swimming with his family. Every so often, the turtle will encounter some sort of challenge or danger. For instance, the danger might be a coconut falling out of a tree. In those cases, his strong turtle shell protects him. The coconut rolls right off the shell and the turtle continues on with his day. Sometimes, more serious dangers arise and the turtle has to retreat inside of his shell for protection. Occasionally, the turtle will get flipped onto his back by a major storm and will need some help to get right-side up again.
In some ways, the turtle represents our own lives. When stresses come barrelling at us, we are able to work through most of them and continue with our day. Bigger stresses, however, can test us and our limits. In those cases, we might need to take a moment and step back from the situation (retreat inside our shell) to process what has happened and calm down. And occasionally, those bigger stresses can tip us over and cause us to react in ways we normally wouldn’t. In those cases where we find ourselves flat on our backs, we need help to get back on our feet.
Stress and anger
Some of us have likely felt angry over the last few months. Our worlds have changed, uncertainty about the future can be overwhelming, and the stresses keep mounting. But what is anger and how does stress have a part in it?
Anger is a secondary emotion that is the result of combining hurt and worry. We feel hurt when something in our day didn’t go as we had planned, or when we are let down and disappointed. Worry occurs when we start focusing on the “what if” questions. These “what if” questions can fuel feelings of anxiety if they are not kept in check. When you combine hurt and worry, they mix like baking soda and vinegar in the heart of a model volcano. Anger will erupt and you’ll end up like a turtle on his back.
It’s important that we take mental health breaks and check in with ourselves frequently throughout the day to make sure we keep those emotions from mixing. Next, we will look at some practical ways to ensure that your feet are on the ground and that you’re staying right-side up.
Tips for staying right-side up
The moment before an explosion rocks your shell and flips you onto your back is caused by an overload of stress. Stresses such as sensory overloads or feeling like more is expected of you than you can offer can tip you off balance. In extremely stressful situations, such as the coronavirus pandemic, we can unintentionally lash out at our children. Here are some ways to try and prevent a backflip and to protect your child in case you do end up on your back.
Remember: if you or someone you know tends to get flipped onto their back often or needs some help staying right-side up, don’t hesitate to talk to a counsellor online or over the phone. If you are concerned about safety, reach out to a friend, Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department or another registered counsellor.
In survival situations, being able to slow down and focus is absolutely critical to staying alive. Students of survival skills training are taught the acronym S.T.O.P. to help them make it through dangerous situations. Using this same acronym and technique can be extremely helpful in our own lives when we feel we’ve reached the tipping point.
When you feel the stresses mounting and need a mental health break, follow these steps:
Stop. Consciously take a mental pause.
Think. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? Why I am I reacting this way?”
Observe. Notice, “What is going on around me?”
Plan. Decide, “What am I going to do now?”
Stop every hour to take a mental health break. Be mindful of how you are doing. Go through the steps listed above. Learn to identify what disappointments you may have faced in the last hour and identify the “what if” questions that have been running through your mind.
Be aware of your own feelings. Ask yourself what thoughts are driving those feelings. Perhaps ask, “What’s expected of me? Am I worried that I can’t measure up?” or “What am I really expecting of myself? Is it reasonable?” Notice when you are annoyed or overwhelmed and are becoming angry. Once you are aware, choose to take a break and deal with your emotions before you try to deal with your screaming child’s emotions.
You may want to use a timer or alarm to alert you each hour. Need a visual reminder to stop and take a break? You and your kids can take some time to make these fun felt turtles. It will not only be a fun craft to bond with your kids over but will remind you how important it is to stay right-side up.
It’s critical to routinely stop and figure out why you are feeling on edge. Figuring out the cause and taking time to step back for a moment is an important step in calming down and staying on your feet.
Focus on safety
Focus on safety for you and your child. Be aware that safety doesn’t just refer to physical safety, but also to emotional, verbal and spiritual safety. Be aware that how you talk to your spouse, to others on the phone or even to the TV can greatly affect your children.
Realize that a lack of supervision can be just as unhealthy as overly controlling supervision. How do you find that balance? Be aware of what your kids are doing without standing over them. Check in regularly and, in general, keep doors to rooms open so that you can walk past and see what your child is doing.
Household quiet times or timeouts are helpful during the times we must remain inside. Make sure each person has their own “getaway spot” where they can sit and be alone to hang out with their favourite blanket, book, toy, snack, music, etc. Practice having your family stay in their “getaway spot” for 15 minutes at a time as a household. This can be used as a mental health break for all members of your family, including yourself. Make sure to not use the getaway spot for punishment or timeouts, but if a child chooses to go there during their timeout or “getaway” from parents, you can allow your child to do so.
As a parent, where is your getaway spot?
Start the conversation
Listen to your children. Pick a time to sit down and talk to your child. Ask him or her:
- How is your day going?
- Is there anything that scares you or makes you worried today?
- Can you give me a grade on how I’m doing as your parent today? What can I do that would help me get an A+?
- I would like to tell you three things I saw you do that were great today!
- Is there anything more about you or your day that I need to know?
What if I’ve flipped on my back?
If you find that you’ve tipped on your back, something that can help is to identify the hurt and acknowledge it. Then, identify the worry in your thinking and bring those “what if” questions back to the present. Focus on what you can do right now to help settle the situation and get upright again.
If you find that you have gotten overly angry at your child, let them know that you were wrong. Have a conversation about things that they can do next time you get angry in order to be safe. Practice allowing them to role play getting safe when they feel unsafe with you. Enlist the other parent or a neighbour to help. Have specific places that your child is allowed to run and hide in order to be safe. Have an emergency plan to ask for help when you as a parent need it.
Keep a list on your phone of three to five people that you can call at any time that can help give you support and help you to calm down.
Stick to the positives
Keep a sticky note pad in your pocket. Throughout the day, write down everything good that your kids do that is right and makes you proud. If you can’t find anything, use things like, “I’m so proud of you for having such a great set of lungs to make sounds like that” or “I love that your legs are strong enough to kick” or “I’m so grateful that you’re able to use words all by yourself.”
At the end of each day, you can share a couple of the good ones with your child. Make sure you give good eye contact, use an excited voice, and an appropriate hug or high five. Feel free to add why you liked that about your child. Always use a positive tone, never a sarcastic or condescending tone, when sharing these positives with them.
How to tell if your kids are experiencing stress
If your kids are experiencing significant stress, they may not be able to articulate what they are feeling. However, you will notice it in their behaviour. Here are some ways to tell if your kids are experiencing significant amounts of stress:
- Your child has had a major shift in personality. This isn’t just general moodiness – this is behaviour that has you saying, “My child has completely changed!”
- If your child is usually quiet and reserved, they may become loud and outspoken. If they’re usually talkative, they may become very quiet.
- Your child might stop following routines. They may want to sleep in their clothes or shower in their bathing suit, for example.
- Your child may also show changes in eating or sleeping habits.
- Your child might begin to show signs of regression. For instance, if they are potty trained, they may start having accidents again.
If you see any of these signs of stress in your child, help your child right away. Find out the cause of their stress. If you need assistance, are concerned about safety, or need help with this season of life, reach out to Focus on the Family Canada’s care and counselling team by calling 1.800.661.9800, Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time.
In stressful times, it’s important to be like a turtle and let most things roll off of our shells. When the stress becomes intense, it’s important that we stop and take a mental health break to evaluate where the stress is coming from before an explosion happens and we are tipped on our backs. In cases where we have been tipped over like a turtle, or are repeatedly tipped over, we need help to get right-side up again. Remember, you don’t have to go at this alone if you are in this situation. There are wonderful people who can support you and help you stay right-side up more often.
© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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